Student meal debt is rising rapidly in many school districts across the country.
The reason: now that federal funding that made school meals free for all students during the pandemic has ended, families are either struggling to pay for school meals or aren’t even aware that the program ended and they are now obligated to pay.
The end of universal free school meals comes as inflation and rising labor costs are driving up food prices for both schools and families.
Already, students in the Mead 46-1 school district in South Dakota have racked up $5,000 in school meal debt only two months into the school year. That’s more than the $4,500 in lunch debt that the district usually accumulates over the course of an average school year, said the district’s food services director, Rhonda Ramsdell.
“People who have children in kindergarten and 1st grade, they have never had to pay for lunches. So we have to really educate them,” she said. “We’re working daily, making calls to get people to fill out applications and put money on those accounts. It’s been a difficult year.”
In Pitt County Schools, in Greenville, N.C., parents collectively owe the district $28,000 for school meals this academic year, according to the local ABC News affiliate. The district enrolls around 23,000 students.
The 13,000-student Bonneville Joint School District No. 93 in Idaho already has $6,000 in school debt this academic year, according to NBC News.
And in Michigan, The Detroit Free Press reported that a majority of food service directors in the state said they are experiencing high levels of student lunch debt.
Ramsdell said she has talked to her counterparts in other South Dakota school districts, and many of them are also seeing much higher than normal student lunch debt.
Schools struggle to get eligible families to sign up for free and reduced-price school meals
The national School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors, confirmed that members from across the country are reporting that student meal debt is rapidly accruing. The association also pointed out that food service directors are struggling to educate families about the growing debt and the need to apply for free and reduced-priced lunches, if they are eligible. This is an issue that the School Nutrition Association, which has lobbied to keep school meals free for all students, warned of prior to the expiration of the federal waivers which had previously made school meals automatically free to all students.
Low-income families—or those that make at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line—still qualify for free and reduced priced lunches, but now parents must fill out paperwork to get those free lunches, which creates a hurdle, said Ramsdell.
“The ones we’re worried about are the families who could qualify and should fill out an application, or the ones who haven’t done anything and their kids are eating every day and we’re trying to reach out to them in as many ways as possible,” said Ramsdell.
As soon as she knew the federal waivers were going to expire in July, Ramsdell said she started reaching out to families to warn them and encourage those eligible to apply for assistance. The district has notified families through email, on its social media sites, on the district website, and through packets sent home with kids. School principals have also been calling families to try to notify them about the changes.
Like many districts, Mead has an angel fund in which donors can help pay for school meal debt. But that’s not a solution to the problem, Ramsdell said.
Ramsdell said she and other food service directors are asking their legislators for help in formulating a plan to deal with the student meal debt.
“We’re going to keep feeding the kids,” she said. “We’re not going to lunch shame them or feed them cheese sandwiches. We all say this, but this is not sustainable for our programs. This is real money we’re not receiving.”
States that continue providing school meals to all students
Other states may soon follow. Voters in Colorado will decide this election whether to make school meals free to all children.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin have introduced legislation to make school meals free for all students, according to a tally from NPR.
In a December 2021 poll, the Urban Institute found that nearly 70 percent of adults support making free school meals for all students a permanent policy.
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.